Keep Calm and Carry On

by Lani Teshima, staff writer

Have you ever lost your luggage, or had it get rerouted and show up well into your vacation? Are you fed up with spending extra money on baggage fees with the airlines, or having to leave a huge tip with the porter for all the bags you need carried to your hotel room?

There is a way to free yourself from a lot of the hassles of luggage; travel with just your carryons!

No need to faint in disbelief. For now, just consider carryon-only travel as an ultimate or extreme goal; one that takes some discipline and adjustments (but surprisingly doable for most people). For now, let's just look at how we can minimize our luggage headaches when traveling on a Disney theme park vacation.

Why pack lighter in the first place?

There are many reasons why packing lighter is a good thing:

  • Cheaper to travel – You can avoid paying check-in luggage fees, and pay less to the cab driver or porter (who typically expect $1 per bag)
  • Less worry – You have fewer bags or suitcases to worry about getting lost in transit
  • Easier to get around – You can stack your bags on your main check-in bag and wheel everything around yourself
  • More bag space for your trip home – You get more room for souvenirs on your flight home
  • Friendlier to the planet – you literally have a smaller footprint (fewer bags, lighter total weight of each traveler with their stuff, etc.)

There are various ways to avoid paying those pesky luggage fees when you fly. For example, you can:

  • Fly on Southwest Airlines, which doesn't charge for your first two check-in bags
  • Have a United Airlines Mileage Plus Explorer Visa (or other frequent flyer) card, which lets you waive luggage fees
  • Fly business or first class, which typically doesn't charge extra for checking in luggage
  • Have elite status with your frequent flyer program

Start with the luggage

Figuring out how to lighten your load starts well before you actually start packing your luggage. If you're on the market for new luggage, consider how easy it will be for you to use them. These days, even the larger check-in bags take the form of a rolling upright. That makes moving them a snap, but how easy is it to maneuver when they're full of clothes and weigh 50 pounds? Will the luggage fit in the trunk of your car? Can you lift and carry the case when it's fully loaded?

Some of the large models are extremely huge. My recommendation is to avoid going with the largest cases, and instead picking moderately sized ones that are easier to handle. One test: At the luggage store, ask the clerk if you can weigh the case down (with other merchandise; do it in front of the clerk), then try to navigate what is surely going to be narrow pathways and aisles inside the store. How easily does the case turn when it's heavy? Does the case try to flip over? How sturdy does the telescoping handle feel? Does it lock into place, and slide up and down with ease? Does the case have grab handles so it's easy to hoist without using the handlebar? Can you lift it when it's full?

Tip: Pay attention to the wheel mechanism and telescoping handlebars on rolling uprights. If the bag is recessed to accommodate these, you will have a big hump inside the bag that will affect how much you can pack. On the flip side, you'll have more room if they are on the outside of the case, but these stick out and may make them harder to put into a car trunk.

"Garanimal"-ify your wardrobe

If you're like a lot of people, your trip to Disneyland or Walt Disney World means packing "vacation clothes." Forget all that frumpy office stuff; you're packing your T-shirts and shorts! But before you toss a bunch of your favorite Mickey shirts in your luggage, take time to put together your packing wardrobe. For me, this usually means grabbing everything from the closet I think I want to take, and laying them all out on the bed. Then comes the "Garanimal"ification exercise. Garanimals are a brand of children's clothes that are tagged with different animals. As long as you match animals for your top and bottom, the colors and styles are guaranteed to work together. You can do the same thing with your vacation wardrobe. What this means is that, as much as possible, every item of clothing should match everything else. Sorry folks. That means your striped shirt should probably not go with your Minnie Mouse polka-dotted skirt.

The easiest way to coordinate your wardrobe is to pick a theme color. Neutrals are the easiest to match, so consider colors such as tan, cream, brown, khaki, navy, or even black. So aside from your blue jeans, try to stay within the same theme color for all of your clothes. You can still pack that favorite purple T-shirt, but it should still match the pants or shorts you've chosen in your theme color.

By coordinating around a theme color, you should be able to mix and match every single item in your wardrobe. This allows you to pack fewer garments because you aren't having to pack multiple sets of clothes. Instead, you can have some overlap, and what you wear will depend more on what's clean, rather than whether something matches or not.

Dont' forget, most resort hotels have coin-operated washers and dryers, so you only need to pack for a handful of days and do some laundry once or twice during your trip.

Tip: If you plan to pick up some souvenir T-shirts, count those as part of your vacation wardrobe by leaving one or two T-shirts at home.

Leave your cosmetic case at home

My husband has a running joke; every time I go to the store, he says I'm compelled to check the skincare aisle to find out if there are any new lotions I can buy. While I don't think I'm that bad, I confess to using at least four different kinds of lotion everyday (I mean, you need one for your face with sunscreen, one just for your heels, another for your hands, one to go to bed in... right?). The challenge with having all these skincare (or hair care) products is that they take up a lot of space, and certainly it's not possible to fit everything into those itty bitty, teeny tiny, quart-sized resealable baggies, right? Wrong! It's much easier to pack all of your toiletries into the TSA-mandated 3-1-1 bags by making a few simple adjustments:

  • Save those sample-sized bottles and decant your own products into them (or find your products in travel-sized bottles).
  • If you travel with others, spread out the toiletries among those in your party. For example, men might only carry deodorant and toothpaste in their 3-1-1 bags; consider packing your extra tube of lotion in his baggie. Children get the same 3-1-1 bag allowance, so you can even pack some items in their 3-1-1 bags.
  • If you rent a car (something you might not do if you're using Disney's Magical Express shuttle service), you can easily swing by a supermarket or drugstore to pick up any items you couldn't pack.
  • Usie a second baggie to hold onto any medical liquids, such as contact lens solution. These do not need to meet 3-1-1 requirements and you can still take them in your carry-on.
  • Consider a switch to a non-liquid form of some of your products, such as mineral foundation in place of your liquid foundation. Lush stores sell bars of shampoo, and there are stores that carry bars of "shaving soap."

If you're unsure about how much product you'll need, here's a great little test: A few weeks before your trip, decant your products into the travel-sized containers you plan to use. Rather than packing them in your 3-1-1 kit early, leave them in your bathroom at home, and use them until you use everything up. If it helps, put a little sticky-note near them to jot down how often you used them. This will give you a good idea of how long the small containers will last. If your hair is very dry and you go through the conditioner after two uses, you might consider finding a thicker conditioner, or take two small bottles of conditioner with you. As you use up the bottles, it's OK to toss them out (thereby lightening your load some more).

Don't forget that all of the Disney resort hotels offer basic toiletries, like soap and shampoo. If you're staying on-property, you can save space by using the toiletries they provide. If you're like me and you like to take them home as souvenirs, however, consider tossing your own bottles at the end of your stay to make room for the Disney versions. If you don't have enough space in your 3-1-1 kit, toss the extras in a big Ziploc baggie to put in your check-in (the Ziploc baggie will reduce spillage disasters should any of them leak).

One huge plus when you don't put your toiletries in your check-in luggage, though: You never have to worry about busted lids or broken bottles messing up the contents of your luggage. See if you can reduce the amount of liquids you take on your next trip.

Tip: Although you're allowed up to 3 ounces (or 100 milliliters) in a bottle, consider the more manageable 2-ounce bottle. And you can get those anywhere, including those "energy shot" drinks! Just remove the label and voila. Your own travel-sized bottle.

Take a carryon even if you're checking in your luggage

Even if you don't like the hassles of carrying anything with you onto your flight bigger than your regular purse, I encourage you to consider taking a carryon bag. Even if you've managed to get most of your things neatly packed into your check-in luggage, there are some important things that could spell disaster (or at minimum, a big inconvenience) for your trip should your check-ins get lost. These include:

  • Any prescription medication, as well as copy of your prescription from your doctor. The prescription becomes helpful if something happens to your medicine and you need to get a refill.
  • Reading glasses, prescription glasses, contact lens case and solution.
  • One day's change of clothing, in case the airline sends your luggage to Maui instead of Orlando (or just as likely, that you made the tight connection but your bag didn't, and you're told the bag will arrive "in a day or two"). The airlines may provide you with a basic amenity kit or some money to buy some clothes, but have you looked at what's available at the resort shops? Consider packing your swimwear in your carryon as well (especially if you're going on a Disney cruise, since your luggage won't arrive to your room for a few hours, and you can spend that time poolside.
  • Any valuable jewelry or electronics that may get taken by less-than-honest baggage handlers. Although this isn't commonplace, you hear about airport theft rings opening luggage and making off with valuables. You might not be able to avoid it from happening to you, but you can make sure there's nothing in your luggage worth stealing. You might consider taking your electronic chargers in your carryon as well, so you can easily recharge when you get to your hotel.
  • Your 3-1-1 toiletry kit with your make-up, toothpaste, toothbrush.

In my opinion, every person in your travel party should take a carryon, each packed with these items. If you're traveling with kids, you will want to take some toys for the flight (or drive)... but you should still consider packing their own 3-1-1 bags in their own carryons (since this multiplies the amount of toiletries you can take).

Tip: A lightweight backpack makes a great carryon, and can serve double-duty as your day bag during your visit to the parks.

Manage your souvenirs

When you're traveling light, you have to mind what souvenirs you buy. You have to make sure that you can fit your souvenirs in your luggage. Fortunately, you have some options:

  • Consider buying items that are small and can pack easily in your carryon or check-in bag. While you can add an extra check-in with just your souvenirs, you can avoid the risk of losing it or having it stolen if you can just pack everything into the luggage you brought with you. Examples include refrigerator magnets, pressed pennies, postcards, and Disney pins.
  • Buy flat items, like calendars or notebooks. These can also pack easily into your luggage.
  • Ask that they ship an item back for you. This is especially true if you purchase fragile items. Disney cast members know how to pack these up really well, and it's possible to have them ship these items home for you.
  • Buy souvenir T-shirts and other pieces of clothing that you start wearing during your trip, and which you can easily pack along with your other clothes in your bag. Remove tags, toss out the shopping bags they came in, and just treat them like part of your travel wardrobe.
  • Rather than buying "stuff," consider collecting memories in the form of digital photos and videos. Take snapshots of everything, and don't forget to include members of your party in the photos as well. These days, you can easily share them with your friends through social media, allowing them to enjoy your vacation vicariously. All of these take up no extra space in your bags.

You don't have to take everything with you

Travel can be exciting—but it can also cause anxiety. Our insecurities start to creep up, and we start to second guess ourselves. Did we make all the arrangements? Did we forget anything? What if we hit bad weather—shouldn't we pack our rain boots and umbrellas? It's easy to make the mistake of packing for contingencies; doing this usually results in taking way too much stuff. It's OK to pack fewer items. Just be smart about what you pack. If you're a Disney Vacation Club member and you always spend a week at Saratoga Springs, you can even get yourself a locker service (like Owner's Locker) to hold onto things you know you only use when at the resorts. If you find that you forgot to pack something, relax! Most things are easily purchased at a nearby store.

You don't need to completely change up the way you pack. But with just a few minor changes and an awareness about how you pack, your adjustments can help you become a lighter packer.



  1. By DwarfPlanet

    DW and I pack one bag to use between the two of us and then take a small carry on apiece.

  2. By Jimbo996

    While overpacking is a bad idea, underpacking will also make a vacation difficult. However, I don't advocate a carry-ons versus check-in argument. If you're spending a few thousand for a vacation, what is a few dollars in checking in your luggage? Relatively, it isn't much, and you don't have to worry about taking it to the terminal and lifting it into the baggage rack.

    Exactly where do you have space for your souvenirs if you're solely doing carry-ons? I don't see where your argument make sense.

    I don't recommend everyone take a carry-on although I'm sure kids will insist. Kids are prone to leave things behind. It is a nightmare to have to go back to the airplane or bus or car if you suddenly forget something.

    You'll always end up with more things when the vacation comes to a close. In these cases, I recommend checking in your luggage. Hauling all that stuff into the airplane is a horrible way to end a vacation.

  3. By candles71

    Our family of 6, plus a friend, packed for 10 days in New York and Washington DC, including Dress clothes (1 suit, plus a sport Jacket and 2 pairs of slacks each, for DH and B) in a carry-on plus a backpack each. We had no issues with places for souvenirs. Our then 18 year old daughter and her 22 year old friend ended up washing a small load of laundry our last night in DC so they would have pants for the following days touring and then the flight home the day after that.
    The only sacrifice made was not being able to buy snow globes. (G collects them, A saw one she REALLY wanted in the shop at the top of the Empire State Building. We ended up finding what would be the exact inside of the snow globe in a shop across the street, without the water.)
    We never lost anything or had to go back for anything.

  4. By Lani

    Quote Originally Posted by Jimbo996 View Post
    While overpacking is a bad idea, underpacking will also make a vacation difficult. However, I don't advocate a carry-ons versus check-in argument. If you're spending a few thousand for a vacation, what is a few dollars in checking in your luggage? Relatively, it isn't much, and you don't have to worry about taking it to the terminal and lifting it into the baggage rack.
    Not everyone likes the idea of traveling with no check-ins, for the very reasons you mention, Jimbo. That's why in this article, I focused on tips for lightening your load, including your checked luggage. I do plan on running a follow-up article that focuses more on carryon-only travel, but I thought it made more sense to introduce folks to the general concept of "traveling with less" first before sending people into shock.

    A lot of the benefits of traveling with just carryons go beyond money, and is more a matter of convenience. That said, one person's idea of carryon-only convenience is another person's idea of being weighed down and walking around carrying your own turtle shell, so it's definitely a matter of opinion.

    Using your example ("if you're spending a few thousand for a vacation, what is a few dollars in checking in your luggage"), here's a flip side of the argument. If I'm spending a few thousand for a vacation, can I tolerate the hassles and hours I have to spend dealing with lost luggage? Do I want the flexibility of changing flights on the fly and not worry about the airline moving my bags correctly? Do I want to waste time waiting for my bags to show up?"

    Quote Originally Posted by Jimbo996 View Post
    Exactly where do you have space for your souvenirs if you're solely doing carry-ons? I don't see where your argument make sense.
    As I mentioned in the souvenirs section, there are a lot of ways to do it, and a lot of travelers manage all the time. The problem arises when I buy souvenirs that are not travel-friendly. So like candles71 mentioned, snow globes are a problem, unfortunately. Something like that, I'm better off having them ship for my home. I also want to think about how many souvenirs I need to buy. I can buy a ton of souvenirs and still have everything easily fit in my carry-on if I'm picking up things like keychains and Disney pins. In essence, it requires a little extra thought and care.

    Quote Originally Posted by Jimbo996 View Post
    I don't recommend everyone take a carry-on although I'm sure kids will insist. Kids are prone to leave things behind. It is a nightmare to have to go back to the airplane or bus or car if you suddenly forget something.
    I know parents who put together little activity kits for their kids, and they know exactly what's packed in them. But I'm sure it depends on the age of the child, etc. -- each child is different. If a child is bad about dropping little toys and whatnot, then maybe you don't want to include those in the child's carry-on.

    Companies like L.L.Bean make adorable small daypacks for little ones of various ages. A child doesn't need to haul a super-sized carryon, but one that can be reasonably carried.

    Quote Originally Posted by Jimbo996 View Post
    You'll always end up with more things when the vacation comes to a close. In these cases, I recommend checking in your luggage. Hauling all that stuff into the airplane is a horrible way to end a vacation.

    Sometimes I end up with more things, but not always. When I'm traveling to a running event, I typically bring a cheap or ratty sweatshirt to wear at the start, with full intention of tossing it. I also take a bag full of vitamin supplements, packed into little EZ-dose baggies that I toss out before the end of the trip. So as I go, I'm lightening my load.

    One other thing; people tend to pack their bags full no matter the size of the bag. That means the larger your bag, the more stuff you'll pack into it. If you can break that habit and just pack what you need, you'll have a lot of extra room in your luggage to stash your souvenirs for your trip home! :-)

  5. By sasmmb

    Not all contact lens solutions are exempt from the 3-1-1 rule. Only Saline solution. Clear Care, AOSept and other hydrogen peroxide based solutions still fall into the 3-1-1 category. Clear Care makes a 2 oz travel size bottle which lasts about 12 days I think.
    Another tip is to pack a duffle bag or other bag that can be flattened. That way if you do end up with more souveniers and you didn't want to ship them, you have a bag that you can check if need be to carry your goodies.

    Briggs & Riley make a wonderful carry-on bag. It has the maximum dimensions allowed for a carry-on, handles are on the outside to allow for flat packing on the inside with no hump, and a lifetime guarantee. They have 2 versions of this bag, 1 of which has the expandable zipper to give you an extra inch or so. If you do use it in expandable form it must be checked though. Also I found it significantly heavier than the non-expandable version.

    If you are fine with checking bags, resist the temptation to just buy a super large piece of luggage. It is way too easy to exceed the 50 pound limit which would result in extra fees.

    Also, if you need to check a bag, make sure the whole family has 2-3 days worth of clothing and toiletries you can't do without in a checked bag. Not thinking one vacation, I put all my clothes and family christmas presents in the checked bag while my husband did only carry-on. The check bag didn't make the flight (checked in 2 hours in advance for a non-stop flight. Seriously how incompetent are airlines sometimes?). If I'd put some of my clothes in the carry-on and my husbands in the checked bag, the following 30 hours would have been much nicer.

  6. By Jimbo996

    @Lani: Your article focused on carry-on luggage. You didn't discuss check-in luggage to any extent. You should have focused mostly on check-in luggage if you intend to discuss carry-on luggage later. You had it backwards.

    The problem arises when I buy souvenirs that are not travel-friendly.
    Many souvenirs are not travel friendly. It is added space and weight. You have to travel without much if you intend to bring souvenirs. Otherwise, the only recourse of mailing the items.

    One other thing; people tend to pack their bags full no matter the size of the bag.

    Again, you looked at it backwards. People pack according to the size of the bag. Meaning they will adjust their needs to fit the bag. Nonetheless, carry-ons are limited to the allowed maximum size of the bag. Typically, you can only expect to bring enough personal items for a 3 to 4 day trip. Longer trips necessitate bigger bags. So if you artificially restrict your bags when you're traveling on an one week trip to Disney World, you're unlikely to travel lightly no matter how much you try.

    If I'm traveling on an one week trip, I will bring a medium sized luggage for checking-in. I won't fill it up entirely. I will definitely have enough room for anything I end up with. Since I don't buy much souvenirs, I usually use the space for packing jackets and such. I will bring breakable fragile items as carry-ons. I won't be able to do this if I also have to bring a carry-on luggage.

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